The Rejection of Modern Science:

the Nazi Dismissal Policy of 1933


Colleen Harris

Jacksonville University


In 1933, the Nazi regime in Germany passed the Civil Service Law, which dismissed non-Aryans and the “politically unreliable” from state employment.[1] Exemptions existed, such as those for World War I veterans, but many of these civil servants were forced to accept transfers to other positions.[2] Two currents had flowed together to create the Civil Service Law, the first law of the Dismissal Policy. Long before the rise of the Nazis, many Germans had rejected elements of the modern world of which science is a crucial component. On top of this, Nazi Germans associated Jews with modern science because of the high number of Jews working in science. These dismissals included scientists from teaching and other governmental positions. Of those dismissed from their positions, some left their homeland and some remained in Germany. In either case, the dismissal of professors from their appointments adversely affected German science.[3]


Respect for higher academic learning had traditionally played a large role in German life and culture. Academics stressed more than merely building upon a student’s primary and secondary education. Guided by the concepts of Bildung, German professors taught their pupils character development and loyalty to Germany. They imparted the wisdom of “personality formation within a cultural environment which stressed duty, adherence to principle, and a lofty concern for the ‘inner’ or ‘spiritual’ values of life.”[4] Through Bildung, professors sought to develop an entire individual and imbue him with the right character, generally with a “Christian-ethical tone”.[5] Bildung led to the concept of Kultur—an ideology that led to “an air of moral superiority” among Germans and promoted esteem for professors.[6] Kultur connoted everything society had accomplished. Continuing the Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century, Germans contrasted the values of Kultur with the impositions of Zivilisation, crass Western materialism. “Materialism” later came to describe any of Germany’s social problems, in particular, any movement away from tradition. These ideas led Germany’s intelligentsia and traditionalists to reject much of the modern world and all its attendant evils to prevent Germany’s suffering greater problems.


These attitudes shaped the Nazi’s approach toward modern, specifically, theoretical science. Scientific traditionalists hesitated to endorse the scientific advances of the early twentieth century. Germans enthusiastically embraced learning as a part of Kultur; they did not, however, include science as part of this learning. The Germans considered Wissenschaft, general learning or study, to be acutely different from Naturwissenschaft, or science. German intellectuals dismissed science as “less worthy than pure learning.”[7]


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, German laboratories and industrial institutions had been the best, most innovative, in the world. In fact, between 1901 and 1932, one third of all Nobel Prize winners hailed from Germany. Only 18 percent were British and a meager 6 percent were American.[8] Germany retained its dramatic lead over the rest of the scientific world until the early 1930s, when the United States took its place.[9] Certainly, the Nazi regime’s Dismissal Policy, especially toward theoretical scientists, spurred the decline in the quality of German science and enriched the scientific establishments of its enemies. By 1939, for example, the level of chemistry in the United States, a country frequently adopted by the German refugees, had risen dramatically.[10] After a European tour in that same year, a University of California professor asserted that, while the pace of research under the Nazi regime had not diminished, theoretical science was not being encouraged because it conflicted with the government’s ideology.[11] By 1942, even some Germans were themselves admitting that the United States had pulled ahead in physics.[12]


Persecution of scientists and their flights to safety and freedom had long been a German tradition. Many German scientists, for example, had fled their homeland during the revolutionary disturbances of 1848. The pace picked up after Adolph Hitler’s ascent to power in January 1933. Between 1933 and 1939, over 1,700 scientists rejected Nazi-imposed restrictions on science and left Germany to seek sanctuary in other lands.[13]


Many of the scientists who left objected to Nazi-enforced methods of science. The Nazis’ “new science” was not objective; it was certainly not the “common property of mankind;”[14] and the party used it to serve its own purposes.[15] In June 1936, Dr. Bernhard Rust, German Minister of Science, Education, and People’s Education and loyal Nazi, declared that Nazism and official ideology were more important than was empirical, objective science. Turning the notion of empirical truth on its head, he argued that “Science which is not in accord with it [German ideology] is not objective.” For Rust, the changes made in German science were only to “enrich itself.”[16] The Nazis maintained that they were basing science on observing nature and its reactions. Non-Aryan, theoretical science, on the other hand, did not expect one clear, definitive answer and considered each partially proven assumption to be a milestone.[17] In Germany, as the New York Times reported, not even “a laboratory worker [could] decide for himself what the philosophy of science [should] be,” implying that science was a merely a tool of the dictatorship to be manipulated by the Führer and his party.[18] Prominent scientists willingly gave themselves and their study to the regime.[19]


Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, who included Adolph Hitler as a great scientist, wrote as early as 1924 that “incarnations of this spirit [that of the great scientists] are only of Aryan-Germanic blood.”[20] Lenard also claimed that the basis for the misguided belief that science was international could be traced to the amount of Nordic blood in the country’s population. Other societies could produce science only because they shared a common ancestor with the Germans.[21] Professor Lenard, a Nobel Prize winner and famous for his work with cathode rays, was fiercely anti-Semitic and enthusiastically supported Hitler and Nazism. The dismissal of Jewish scientists did not disturb him.


Nazi science naturally contained a racial element to it: theoretical science was “Jewish” and non-theoretical was “Aryan.”[22] The Nazis dismissed the validity of Jewish science, especially physics, a field where Jews were particularly prominent. Philipp Lenard later wrote, “With the massive introduction of Jews into influential positions . . . the basis of all scientific knowledge, the observation of nature itself, was forgotten and was no longer considered valid.”[23] Dr. Otto Wacker of the Ministry of Education clearly stated the party’s view at a renaming ceremony of the Physikallsches Institut [Physics Institute] in 1936: “The problems of science do not present themselves the same way to all men. The Negro and the Jew will view the same world differently from the Germans.” He also claimed that true science resulted from the “superior qualities of ‘Nordic’ research. [24] The Institute was itself renamed the Philipp Lenard Institute.[25]


There were more racist scientists in Germany. In early 1936, for example, Willi Menzel, a student of physics, claimed that theoretical science came from either Jews or the Jewish spirit; this meant non-Jewish scientists who insisted upon practicing theoretical science were practicing a Jewish craft.[26] He and like-minded Germany scientists thought Jews were contaminating science by attempting to make science mathematical, “in a characteristically Jewish manner.”[27] These Aryans who espoused the “Jewish spirit” were called White Jews. Many contended that to eliminate Jewish influences, especially in science, White Jews also had to be cleansed.


Ignoring the contributions of others, these Germans also said that only Aryans could add to science.[28] Implying that Jews could not devise a worthy science of their own, Germans accused Jews of attempting to “pass off the products of ‘Aryan’ brains as their own.”[29] In one particularly ignoble effort, Johannes Stark, a Nobel-Prize winner in physics, claimed that Albert Einstein had not discovered the famous formula E=mc2. Because Stark could not disprove the formula, he maintained that an Aryan had discovered the formula before Einstein had.[30]


The Nazis coerced Jews, including Jewish scientists, for many years, even before the Nazis made such persecution the official policy with the Nuremberg Laws of 1936. In 1933, James Franck, director of the Second Physical Institute of the University of Gottingen, voluntarily resigned his position because he was Jewish. Although his service during the Great War exempted him from dismissal according to the Civil Service Law of 1933, he decided it would be better if he continued his work elsewhere in Germany. In his resignation letter, Franck claimed that German Jews were “being treated as foreigners and as enemies of the fatherland.” The University of Gottingen lecturers protested his resignation, stating he was attempting “sabotage.”[31] Early on, Nazi policies did not always meet with success—some German scientists were not yet cowered by Nazi physical and ideological thuggery. The Jewish secretary of Astronomische Gesellschaft, for example, assumed he would be re-elected in 1935 based on his scientific qualifications. The Nazis wished to deny him the position because he was Jewish, but a secret ballot thwarted them.[32]


After many scientists had emigrated, those left behind generally refused to correspond with their former friends and colleagues. Paul Harteck and Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer were exceptions. The two young chemists opposed Nazi ideology and maintained contact with the émigrés. Even so, they refused to support their dismissed colleagues beyond correspondence and generally remained indifferent to their fellow scientists’ plight.[33]


Many have wondered how the Aryan scientists could be so blasé about the dismissal of their colleagues. The allure of promotions partly contributed. When the Germans began dismissing Jews from academe, many vacancies opened. Many Aryans who would not have normally arrived to high positions filled these holes. With the exception of Otto Krayer, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology in Berlin, no Germans refused the positions offered them. Immediately following his refusal to assume the spot left by his departed Jewish colleague, university officials dismissed him. Krayer’s career did not end, though. Harvard University later appointed him to a position of full professor.[34]


There was also a quiet anti-Semitism within German academia. Although obvious discrimination did not take place before 1933, Jews found it difficult to rise in their chosen fields. Jews who converted to Christianity had an easier time rising to high positions, but their Jewish heritage was not forgotten.[35] Many Germans regarded the discharge of non-Aryans as a ‘cleansing’ of their homeland. As one example, Karl Freudenberg, a renowned organic chemist, wrote that the Nazi policy of dismissing Jewish scientists was “a cure of the body of the German people.”[36]


Another popular sentiment of the time was that of obedience, an essential component of Bildung. Their education in Bildung meant that scientists had to follow the government’s orders. In a letter responding to British colleague George Barger’s criticism of the dismissals, Karl Freudenberg wrote in July 1933:


There are orders which you simply have to comply with. It is my firm conviction that a cure of the German people was necessary, something which probably only very few will deny. The way it has been carried out cannot be subject to lengthy considerations in this country, simply because there are orders, and it does not matter at all, what the viewpoint of an individual is.[37]


Freudenberg added that Hitler was “simplifying the [governmental] administration with great energy.”[38] Expelling the Jews was the answer to Germany’s problems.[39]


This represented common thought, and cleansing was a large part of the Nazi doctrine. Hitler called the Jews “evil” and described them as “parasites” who have caused all of humanity to suffer.[40] He declared that Jews were the leaders of the “unintellectual human material” of the Marxist party.[41] Hitler felt such strong antipathy toward Jews that he declared, “If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years.”[42] Later, cleansing would lead to the development of the Final Solution, the Nazis’ means of ridding the world of the Jewish people.


Albert Einstein, perhaps the best-known German scientist, was one of many forced to leave Germany as Hitler’s power grew. Although he was initially accepted into the scientific community, Germans came to dislike him even before the imposition of the Nazi regime. He was a pacifist who rebelled against the rigidity of German academia. He also subscribed to what many loathed most about science: theory. Einstein was Jewish, another strike against him. He received many threats, such that he fled to Leiden in the Netherlands in November 1923. He returned to Germany later that year to accept a professorship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Einstein was in California when Hitler came to power, and he refused to return to his homeland.[43]


Even those with the expectation of immunity were not always spared. Fritz Haber, a converted Christian, was a German nationalist, firmly devoted to the country of his birth.[44] He had saved Germany during the first year of World War I with his discovery of making ammonia by using compressed and heated nitrogen and hydrogen.[45] This enabled Germany to make explosives, which had been in short supply because of the Allied Blockade. His discovery also facilitated a large increase in world soil fertility thereby preventing global starvation. More ironically, given the Holocaust, he also developed poison gas. His work led to the deployment of chlorine gas at Ypres in 1915 and the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.[46] Fritz Haber was a Jew, and that outweighed any potential help he could give to the Nazi Regime.


It is easily understood why many Jewish scientists left Germany. Jews, however, were not the only émigrés. The Nazis also dismissed many Aryan scientists for political reasons. These scientists had refused to swear an oath to Hitler or opposed the party for various reasons. The Nazis dismissed Communists for their political views and others for reasons that remain unclear.[47]


Not all scientists left, of course—many stayed. One of the most controversial of these German scientists was Werner Heisenberg. He believed that politics and science did not mix, and he rejected extremist views, including Nazi violence and anti-Semitism. He, nonetheless, praised the regime for its support of national revival. Heisenberg also became the most prominent spokesperson for theoretical physics in Germany. As theoretical physics drew increasing disapproval, he became more focused on defending theory.[48] Heisenberg came under attack in 1937, because of the controversy over his impending appointment as Arnold Sommerfeld’s successor at the University of Munich. Johannes Stark led the attack against Heisenberg’s appointment, claiming he was a “white Jew.” Heisenberg was investigated by the Schutz-Staffel [Defense Squadron]—the SS—after a scathing diatribe against him appeared in Das Schwarze Korps, a newspaper edited by Gunter d’Alquen of the SS. The SS recommended he be transferred to the Theoretical Physics Chair in Vienna where he could be influenced by his colleagues.[49] Despite this disaffection among his colleagues, Heisenberg remained loyal to Germany. He rejected an offer of an American job in 1939. He explained that he felt obligated to share his country’s fortune and help rebuild its science after the war.[50]


In September 1939, Heisenberg joined the uranium fission research team, paving the way for the controversy that surrounds him. Heisenberg’s presence led many Americans to fear that Germany might develop an atomic bomb before the Allies.[51] Germany did not, and controversy over Heisenberg’s involvement rages on in historical circles. Recent developments may answer many questions. In early February 2002, papers concerning the historic meeting between Heisenberg and the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, were released by the Bohr family. These evidence that Heisenberg was not secretly sabotaging Germany’s atomic program but was diligently working on the bomb and was probing Bohr’s ideas during the meeting.[52]


After the Second World War ended, an American team under Samuel Goudsmit investigated Germany’s failure to develop an atomic weapon. When questioned by an American reporter, Heisenberg claimed that the Germans had known how to produce a bomb and had merely not wished to do so. Although the scientists working on the bomb project could have been faced with a moral dilemma, whether to develop an atomic weapon, Heisenberg insisted the sheer size of the impending project relieved them of that burden. Goudsmit was furious that Heisenberg had claimed knowledge the Germans could not have had. The only evidence of a bomb project was a primitive reactor vessel in southern Germany which could not sustain a reaction.[53]


The Nazi failure to develop an atomic weapon symbolized the disfunctionality of Nazi science wherein a priori ideology trumped scientific accomplishment. The Third Reich promoted a subjective view of science that rejected theoretical ideas. Because of the disproportionate number of Jews in science, the Nazis associated modern science with the Jewish people. The Nazis dismissed hundreds of Jewish and Aryan scientists who practiced theoretical science. Many also left their institutions and Germany on their own volition. The Nazi Civil Service Law of 1933 had set in motion events that led to the downfall of German science and contributed significantly to Germany’s eventual destruction in 1945.



[1] Alan D. Beyerchen, Scientists under Hitler (New Haven: Yale University Press 1978), 13–14.


[2] Hentschel, Klaus. Ed. Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Basel: Birkhauser Verlag. “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” April 7, 1933. 21–24.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid., 2.


[5] Fritz Stern, Einstein’s German World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 68.


[6] Beyerchen, Scientists under Hitler, 2.


[7] Ibid., 3.


[8] Jean Medawar and David Pyke, Hitler’s Gift: the True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001), 3. In 1937, Hitler forbade Germans to accept the Nobel Prize, which he replaced with a German national prize. Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Germany and the Nobel Prizes.” February 12, 1937. 142.


[9] New York Times, January 15, 1934.


[10] Ibid., August 13, 1939.


[11] Ibid., February 12, 1939.


[12] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Carl Ramsauer: American Physics Outdoes German Physics,” January 20, 1942. 281.


[13] New York Times, August 13, 1939.


[14] Ibid., February 23, 1936.


[15] Ibid., July 8, 1936.


[16] Ibid., June 30, 1936.


[17] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Willi Menzel: German Physics and Jewish Physics,” 119–120.


[18] New York Times, July 2, 1936.


[19] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “The Scientific Situation in Germany,” June 2, 1933. 60; Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Contract between the Army Ordnance Officer and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences,” March 6, 1940. 236.


[20] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “The Hitler Spirit and Science,” May 8, 1924. 7.


[21] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Philipp Lenard: Foreword to ‘German Physics,’” August 1935. 100.


[22] New York Times, December 11, 1938.


[23] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Philipp Lenard: A Big Day for Science. Johannes Stark Appointed President of the Reich Physical vand Technical Institute.” 50.


[24] New York Times, February 23, 1936.


[25] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift, 35–36.


[26] New York Times, March 9, 1936.


[27] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “White Jews in Science,” July 15, 1937. 153–154; New York Times, March 9, 1936.


[28] New York Times, March 12, 1936.


[29] Ibid., November 22, 1936.


[30] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift, 36.


[31] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Voluntary Resignation of Prof. James Franck” April 17, 1933. 26–28; Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “Gottingen University Lecturers: Professor Franck’s Resignation” April 24, 1933. 32–33.


[32] New York Times, December 29, 1935.


[33] Ibid., 250.


[34] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift, 131 Ute Deichman, “German-Jewish Chemists and Biochemists in Exile,” Science in the Third Reich, ed. Margit Szollosi-Janze (Oxford: Berg, 2001) 253.


[35] Stern, Einstein’s German World, 75.


[36] Ute Deichman, “German-Jewish,” 247, 253; Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift, 131.

 Ute Deichman, “German-Jewish,” 250.

 Ibid., 250.


[37] Ibid., 247.


[38] Ibid.


[39] Ibid., 250.


[40] Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 59, 150.




[41] Ibid., 457.


[42] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift, inside cover.


[43] Ibid., 34–35, 36.


[44] Stern, Einstein’s German World, 73–75.


[45] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift. 88.


[46] Medawar and Pyke, Hitler’s Gift. 88.


[47] Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “The Spirit at Universities,” April 28, 1933. 42.


[48] The above paragraph is based on Brennan, Heisenberg Probably Slept Here, 159, 173.


[49] David C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1992), 379–380; Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism, “SS Head of the Central Office of Public Safety: Letter to Rudolf Mentzel enclosing Report on Heisenberg,” May 26, 1939. 195–197.


[50] Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1993), vii–viii.


[51] Richard P. Brennan, Heisenberg Probably Slept Here: The Lives, Times, Ideas of the Great Physicists of the Twentieth Century (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1997), 174; Cassidy, Uncertainty, 549; Powers, Heisenberg’s War, vii.


[52] New York Times, February 7, 2002.; New York Times, January 7, 2002.


[53] Powers, Heisenberg’s War, vii–ix.